With the upcoming Netflix release of "The Most Hated Woman in America", there is renewed interest in the life and death of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
O'Hair worked to ban prayer in public schools, taking her fight to the Supreme Court which ruled in her favor in 1963.
O’Hair lived in Austin when she founded American Atheists in 1963. She spent more than 2 decades as the group’s President. Her son Jon Garth Murray became President when she stepped down in 1986.
But her demise is perhaps the legacy that's etched in the mind of most. In September 1995, Madalyn, by then in her late 70’s was abducted from her Austin home.Jon as well as O’Hair’s granddaughter Robin were kidnapped too. After being forced to withdraw $600,000 the three were held hostage in a San Antonio motel. They were killed not long after. Their remains were found more than five years later 100+ miles West of San Antonio. Investigators said their bodies had been dismembered and set on fire before being buried.
One of O’Hair’s former employee’s David Roland Waters and another man Gary Karr were found responsible for their deaths. A third suspect is believed to have been murdered shortly after O’Hair, her son and granddaughter. Waters died in 2003 while serving an 88 year prison sentence. He was sentenced to 60 years for extortion. 28 years were added after the remains were found. Karr, who had served time previously for an unrelated conviction is serving a life sentence for his connection to the case. Karr is serving his sentence in a Federal Correctional facility in Illinois.
O’Hair’s life and death is portrayed in the film which airs on Netflix starting March 24. “The Most Hated Woman in America” premiered at SXSW. “The most of the most outrageous dialog in the film is stuff she actually said because we couldn't make that up,” says the film’s screenwriter, Irene Tuner.
Tommy O’Haver who directed also adds, “There's a character at the center of this that's complex and interesting and full of contradictions.”
“It's weird, in those moments you know its fake but your body doesn't know so your physical response kicks in and its fight or flight,” says actor Michael Chernus who plays O’Hair’s son Jon. Much of the cast was in Austin for the film's premiere. Melissa Leo plays Madalyn Murray O’Hair. “Few people know what her end was,” Leo says, adding, “and the films end is about Madeline's end.”
But it's what she did during her life, O’Haver says with the release of the film, is how he would like her to be remembered. “In some ways,” he says, “what I hope people take away from the film is not to take for granted our First Amendment rights because she, Madalyn Murray O'Hair really stood up for those.”